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Lehigh Gap Nature Center talk focuses on state mountain lion

  • ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS District Forester Gene Odato talks to members of the audience following his talk at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center.
    ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS District Forester Gene Odato talks to members of the audience following his talk at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center.
Published September 29. 2012 09:03AM

Center County, Lehigh Township of Northampton County, New Jersey, Delaware Water Gap and the slate quarry along Route 145 are locations where people who attended the first of the Lehigh Gap Nature Center's 2012 speaker's series reported seeing mountain lions.

Speaker Gene Odato, a district forester for the Tuscarora State Forest District, was introduced by Ed Newcomb, a member of the nature center's board of directors.

"Go visit the Pennsylvania state forest. It is your land to enjoy and I work for you," Odato said.

Even if half the sightings of mountain lions were misidentified, he said there would still be a lot. The Eastern Puma Research Network has records dating back to the 1800s. To report sightings contact 304-749-7778 or write: HC 30 Box 2233, Maysville, WV 26833 or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region blog.

Odato said trail cameras are the best way to get wildlife pictures. Here the oak forest provides food for a lot of wildlife. People say the Tuscarora mountains in south central Pennsylvania do not offer habitat for mountain lions but they are occasionally seen there and are found in mountainous areas from Maine to Florida.

Is there an eastern subspecies? There is no way to prove the sub-species exists, Odato said, so the USFWS said it now listed the eastern sub-species as extinct. One western mountain lion was tracked using DNA data coming in from South Dakota. After being hit by a car in Connecticut, it was proven to be the one that had been tracked from the west.

In the 19th century people hunted deer and other wildlife for subsistence. Drilling for oil and gas, timber harvesting, charcoal production and other over-extractions damaged the habitat. It reduced the numbers of mountain lion and other animal numbers dramatically. Now, Pennsylvania has many mammals.

"You name it, we have it," said Odato.

As the habitat improved in the 20th century, the deer herd grew, and soon doe tags were being issued by the Game Commission to manage the herd. There were a couple bad years for acorns so there were few new trees growing for browsing.

The plant eaters strained the habitat but it did improve and Odato said we are now seeing a resurgence of beaver, river otters, fishers and bobcats that were seldom seen in Pennsylvania. The bear population has doubled in size over the last 40 years. And Pennsylvania is home to 800 elk.

With the rebounding habitat the small mammals along with Eastern fence lizards and Eastern earth snakes are seen.

He showed a picture of a mountain lion and pointed to the identifying points: black around the nose and tip of the tail, the rounded ears, white muzzle, a small head and a hump on the shoulders.

They are capable of picking up a full-sized deer and leaping five feet up to a shelf. Because of the plentiful food in the Midwest and the East they do not range as far as in the West - about 25 square miles.

Sightings are most likely on rocky outcroppings. Cubs are spotted but the spots disappear with growth.

After years of denial, nearby states are admitting there are local mountain lions.

Odato said the number of bobcats is rising and their range is broadening throughout parts of the state.

In the 1970s people were told there were no coyotes in Pennsylvania but by the '80s he said there were frequent sightings. A member of the audience said he frequently sees them at Brady's Lake, Monroe County. Now coyotes are seen all along the eastern seaboard.

"When there is food, animals will move in, Mother Nature abhors a vacuum." said Odato. While the quality of the habitat is not stellar, wildlife is finding it adequate for survival.

Some trappers in southern Pennsylvania are each trapping 1,500 red foxes annually. The red fox population is rather healthy in many areas.

The Tuscarora State Forest and several other State Forest districts are cooperating with West Virginia University on a golden eagle migration research project. To attract golden eagles in the winter season, road-killed deer are put out and the eagles are then captured on trail cameras. A nice variety of wildlife, bald eagles, vultures, ravens, bobcats, bears and coyotes, also come to the feast.

He had what may be the only video of two rattlesnakes fighting. A logger captured the fight on his cell phone camera and shared it with the foresters. It can be seen on the Tuscarora State Forest Facebook page.

Porcupines that were a rare sight 30 years ago in southern Pennsylvania have now expanded their range southward. Since they love salty things they can be destructive to communication equipment, electric lines, hydraulic hoses, outhouses, and cabins.

Bears have followed the porcupines into south-central Pennsylvania and have become well established in the region. We have several great photos and videos of them enjoying the doughnuts and the vernal pools in summer, said Odato.

When going out into the wilderness, he recommends wearing snake chaps or boots. He told of one man who did not and was bitten in the lower leg and the hospital bills were over $250,000.

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